The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, July 9, 2000

"We need to formulate a nuclear programme"

AN eminent scientist, Dr Bikash Sinha of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, now Director, Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre and Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, is all for nuclear power plants in the country, specially in the backward regions.

In this interview with Subhrangshu Gupta in Calcutta, Dr Sinha is of the view that nuclear power is a must today to cope with the growing needs. Otherwise, we will remain in the darkness and go back to the candle-light days of the past. Excerpts:

Of late you have been championing the case for setting up large scale nuclear power plants in the country, particularly, in the backward areas. But why? Is it really necessary? Don’t we have plenty of thermal and hydel power plants?

Dr Bikash Sinha Yes, it is really necessary. We have power from conventional resources. But they are insufficient and in future, the shortage will be enormous.

Then, we can go for more thermal and hydel plants to meet our needs. Why nuclear power?

No, we can’t go for thermal and hydel plants for an indefinite period. This is not possible. For thermal and hydel power generations, we need uninterrupted and prolonged supply of coal and water. But is this possible? I believe the 200 billion tonnes of coal reserves in the country will run out long before the next century. Hydro-potential is renewable, and would continue to be available, though at a level much lower than the total need. What do we do then? Should we go without power?

  Don’t you think in a poor country like ours, setting up of nuclear power plants is too expensive a proposition?

No, this is not true. It is not too expensive. Apparently, the generation cost of nuclear power is slightly more expensive but if the transportation cost of coal from collieries to the plant is added, the total generation cost of both thermal and nuclear power would add up to the same amount .

What about the danger involved in nuclear power?

Danger? No, there is no danger. Rather, it is the safest and most environment friendly. There has been misconceptions about nuclear power as it is always associated with the atom bomb. But you know, atomic power has nothing to do with the atom bomb. You should note that the radiation leak from the uranium reprocessing plant in Japan was entirely man triggered, the result of private industry trying to cut corners. India’s nuclear safety record is one of the best in the world and has been so, for a long time, right from the Apsara stage in 1956. Large scale development of nuclear power is inevitable. Here again, the country’s uranium deposits are limited while its thorium deposits large. Hence, we need to formulate a three stage nuclear power programme.

What are those stages?

The first stage comprises the setting up of pressurised heavy water reactors and associated fuel cycle facilities. The second stage envisages the setting up of fast breeder reactors and setting up of processing plants and plutonium based fuel fabrication plants. In order to multiply the fissile material inventory, FBRs are necessary. The multiplication of fissile inventory is needed to establish a higher power base for using thorium in the third stage. And the third stage will be based on a thorium-uranium-233 fuel system. Uranium-233 is obtained by irradiation of thorium in PHWRs and FBRs. To expedite transition to thorium based systems, an advanced heavy water reactor is being developed. This will also sustain some of the heavy water technologies which have been already acquired.

Can India go for nuclear power? I mean, is India scientifically advanced and competent enough to set up nuclear power plants?

Yes, in the sixties two boiler water reactors at Tarapur were built, and these reactors are still in operation. Likely sources for import of light water reactor technology are being sought. Such imports have to conform to the latest safety standards and should be economically viable. The recent deal with the Russian federation regarding setting up of two 1000 Mwe units — at Kundankulam is a step in this direction. In the three stage programme, PHWRs were selected for the first stage because of their best utilisation of limited uranium resources, higher plutonium yield, and then indigenous manufacturing capability. The first two 220 Mwe reactors of this design were built at Rawathbhata, near Kota in Rajasthan, with Canadian collaboration. The next two units of 220 Mwe, each built at Kalpakkam, near Chennai, essentially follow the same. Reactors at Narora offered Indian engineers the first opportunity to evolve indigenous design. Two reactors with similar power rating — 220 Mwe are also operational at Kakrapar. Four more 220 Mwe are in advanced stages of construction, two at Kalga and two at Rawatbhata. The next step is 500 Mwe PHWRs. You know the technology for the manufacture of various components and equipments in the country are well-established. One should note India is the sixth country in the world after the US, the UK the erstwhile Soviet Union, France and Japan to build and operate an FBR.

These are bound to cast the earth, Is it, for a procession on India worthwhile to spend so much for a poor country as India on nuclear power.

After the Kyoto protocol, funds will poser no problem. It will come from the overseas bodies, and I think, we should be intelligent enough to avail the opportunity.

Are the days of thermal and hydel power over?

No, but I talk about the future, when the demands of electricity would be much more and for that matter, there is no alternative to nuclear power. Now we generate some 450 billion KW per hour by thermal as well as hydel plants — hydroelectric power accounts for 22,000 MWs, coal for about 58,000 MWs, gas 9000 MWs and diesel 6700 MWs. Thus the total thermal output is around 67,000 MW. In the coming years, the demand will be much more not enough supply.

But, perhaps, you may not be aware that in some states, particularly, West Bengal, industries have not come up to such extent that additional power will be needed. Even then, will you advise the West Bengal government to go for nuclear power?

I’m only concerned about the technical aspects, and for that matter, I would suggest, not only West Bengal, but all other states should also go for nuclear power plants. If any states do not need nore power for industrialisation it will be something unfortunate. Everywhere in the world, the demand for power has been increasing and the countries like USA, UK, Japan, France, Gemany and other east and west european countries, now depend fully on nuclear power which is more scientific, economic, ecologically more acceptable.